Incident Commanders and Strategic Comms

BerkeleyI recently spoke at a two-day all-hazard crisis incident response seminar in Berkeley, Calif., titled, “Thriving in the First 96 Hours.” Among other activities, I took part in a leadership panel to field questions about crisis communications. This is the last post in a series that has been adapted from my short responses to questions on the topic asked before and during that panel discussion.

(Update: Sep. 29, 2014 – I was missing a little clarity in the original  posting of this piece. Ed McDonough brought that to my attention down in the comments section. My mindset when writing this piece [and formulating my answer during the Berkeley seminar] was the crisis communications support role that Incident Commanders may play during major incidents that require a prolonged response. My response also considers all facets of comms, not just media relations. Thanks for keeping me honest, Ed! Question/response below are unedited from the original posting, minus the context in this paragraph.)

If you could give one critical piece of advice to Incident Commanders about strategic messaging, its use and being timely what would that be?

This is very easy for me to answer, even considering that it is such an open-ended questions with so many great possible answers — of course, my “one critical piece of advice” is backed up by several key points.

At the incident commander or unified command (or executives, in the corporate world) level in a disaster incident response management organization, delivery of messages is the most important skill to hone. I say this because when people are upset during a crisis, they pay attention more to how you say things than to the details of what you say. Of course, that doesn’t mean “don’t worry about the content!”

When someone reaches the point of being in command, he or she should have already gone through basic strategic communications training — what it is, why leaders need to know how to do it, how to create effective messages and practice putting the basic concepts into play.

Part of honing the craft of delivering messages effectively comes down to understanding a very basic fact: no sane person wakes up in the morning and says, “I really hope there’s a crisis today, and I have to talk about how I’m mitigating it to people who are upset or afraid.” That’s why we practice. As often as possible.

The job of the incident commander is to talk to people and promote transparency of information to build trust and credibility for the response management organization. Another important factor that aids in the delivery of messages is someone who can concentrate on 5,000-10,000 foot view of the situation, not the 40,000-foot view (that’s for people in higher pay grades).

6 thoughts on “Incident Commanders and Strategic Comms

  1. Brando,
    Great advice for incident commanders. Too often, in my experience, Command Staffs get wrapped around the axle about the “Strategic Message” and fail to focus on effective delivery of messages that answer the critical response questions of, “what do we know, what do we need to know, what are we doing and what do we need you to do/know.” The effective delivery of this information in the initial hours of the response establishes the IC’s credibility for the effective delivery of the more “strategic” messaging required to address issues that as the response continues will arise within the impacted and affected communities.

    Looking forward to the other posts related to your seminar.
    Chris O’Neil


    • Thanks for the feedback, Chris. All true points you made up there! Anecdotally, seems more often than not that a major lesson learned after someone mis-handles a crisis is “don’t deliver messages in the same style that person did.” Still amazes me that we can go back to the Nixon/Kennedy debates and realize people are still ignoring the “how” of communicating!


  2. Brandon, your thoughts on message delivery are spot on. However, I’m curious about the thought of a incident commander being a spokesperson in an incident. In my experience, most medium to major incidents have one of two people in front of the cameras — the agency chief or another high ranking officer (think Columbia Mall shooting) or a public information officer (think Sandy Hook). The concept of an incident commander as spokesperson is troubling for two reasons: 1. In a jurisdiction of say 250,000 residents or more, there are just too many possible incident commanders to have them all trained up to do PIO work. Just looking at the fire side, for any given incident, IC could be one of a handful of battalion or division chiefs, or the shift supervisor for hazmat, technical rescue or EMS. Multiply that by three or four shifts and there might be a dozen or two folks that would need to have the skill sets and training to do the messaging. Replicate that with other agencies such as police and public works/utilities, and there are even more that need the training and the skills. 2. Perhaps more important, having to deal with messaging takes away from the primary focus of the IC — to manage the incident. I realize in small agencies the IC may have to be the PIO (and may also be the top officer in the agency), but using an IC as a PIO unless absolutely needed is a recipe for failure of both public messaging and managing an incident.


    • Thanks for the thoughts, Ed, and I agree with most of what you say! I had my “federal PIO blinders” on a little bit when I wrote this (old habits …), and had prolonged major incidents (more than a few operational periods) in mind when I was elaborating on the need for the IC to conduct *some* of the public information. Even in those incidents, though, the PIO(s) will do most of the communicating (and should), as you note. There can be times that having the IC talk (and it doesn’t have to just be to the media — community or stakeholder outreach, too) can lend credibility.

      But, like you said, there can often be a jump from PIOs doing the comms work to agency leadership (bypassing the IC altogether, since he or she has plenty of work to do). One of the standard handful of incident priorities is always “inform the public and stakeholders,” and when the IC sets that as a priority, he or she should know that they could play a part in it.

      Thanks again! I’m going to make a note of “what I had in mind” in the post, so it’s a little more clear.


  3. i’ve been thinking quite a bit about doing a better job of preparing our unified command members to get in front of the camera sooner. There isn’t too much to say right off the bat, but they can quickly show a unified effort and set the stage for a transparent response. i was really impressed with how fast and how often joint news conferences were held for the Navy Yard shooting in D.C.; i think we can do a better job. It seems like all the exercises have a news conference at the end, which doesn’t give incident commanders the right idea (wait till you have all the info).


    • Sounds worth pursuing, at least in exercises or training, Andy. The only issue that may arise is the operational workload the ICs have at the very beginning of the response. Let us know how it works if you try it out! Thanks for the comment!


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